Hubert Burda Media

All about Wood

What’s the biggest influence over the flavour of one of the world’s best-loved scotch whiskies? Stuart MacPherson reveals.

In 2017, scottish whisky-maker The Macallan will unveil a swish new distillery and visitor centre at its estate at Speyside. Designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (the firm behind Lloyd’s of London), it will come at a cost of £100 million — a large sum for sure, but not the only big ticket expense on the firm’s books.
“We would have spent more on wood in the next five years than we would have on our distillery. And as our production volumes increase, that figure will only rise as we go forward,” says cooperage manager Stuart MacPherson. Indeed, the house spends more on sourcing, building, seasoning and caring for its casks than any other single malt distiller — and for good reason.
According to a study it commissioned, its casks account for some 60 percent of its whiskies’ final aromas and flavours. At The Macallan, it is also solely from a whisky’s interaction with the oak that its colour is derived.
So coveted are its premium whiskies, that a 6-L version of the M — with notes of dried fruits, citrus and peat — set a world record for the most expensive single malt ever sold at auction after fetching US$628,000 last year.
“That’s why my role is to reach out to both the media and consumers to share with them how important wood is to The Macallan, and its influence on the range of products that we have,” says MacPherson, who doubles up as the whisky-maker’s Master of Wood, a unique ambassadorial role. (“As far as I know, I’m the only one [in the industry],” he says.) A full-fledged cooper himself, he is one of only 200 or so in all of Scotland, a plunge from 1,500 in the profession in the 1970s, despite the fact that 1.26 billion bottles of scotch are now shipped each year.
According to him, The Edrington group, owners of The Macallan, is one of the remaining few to have a team of coopers looking after their casks in Scotland. Eighty percent of The Macallan’s oak casks hail from Spain (where the oak imparts dried fruit, spice and even chocolate flavours), while the remaining 20 percent are made from American oak (which gives a whisky its vanilla, honey and nutty characteristics). Unlike most of its counterparts that use predominantly bourbon-seasoned oak, most of the casks used by the distiller are sherry-seasoned.
Whether felled in the forests of northern Spain or in the American Midwest (Ohio), the wood are transported to Jerez, Spain where they are made into casks and seasoned with dry Oloroso sherry for 18 months before shipment to the Scottish distillery. It is six years from the time a tree is identified till it is turned into barrels and filled with whisky. “We’re the only company that can follow the entire process [from tree to distillery],” says MacPherson.
“Sherry was very much a British drink, and it used to be transported to the UK in casks [that were later used in scotch production]. [In 1980] when Spain decided to ship their sherry in bottles, we were faced with a problem. Where do we get our casks? The scotch industry went to the US. But us, we wanted to follow our roots and decided to be involved in Spain in greater depth and detail,” he adds.
Situated in South-western Spain, Jerez’s biggest export is its sherry. Tevasa, its largest supplier of oak barrels, has worked with The Macallan for more than 50 years. But as with so many other towns, Jerez has not been immune to the recession of recent years. “So it’s nice to know that as a company, we’ve been able to support families directly and indirectly,” says MacPherson who spends one week each month in the largely agricultural town to ensure The Macallan’s steady supply of premium sherry casks.
“One of the objectives I have when I’m in Spain is to be proactive with the suppliers in letting them know how well their casks perform. One way to do that is to have a drink with them,” he says. “People often ask what is the best time to enjoy a whisky. For me, it’s sitting in a bar in Jerez with the suppliers, and knowing the casks we’ve produced have influenced this fantastic product.”